Zakharova at La Scala

"La Bayadère"
(choreography by Natalia Makarova, after Marius Petipa)
Teatro alla Scala, Milan, Italy
18-20 May 2006

by Marc Haegeman
copyright ©2006, Marc Haegeman

The days that ballerinas like Virginia Zucchi, Carlotta Brianza, and Pierina Legnani, groomed at La Scala in Milan, conquered Russian and European audiences and triumphed in the Marius Petipa classics belong to the past. Ironically, when La Scala now programs La Bayadère, French and Russian ballerinas are setting the standard. Last May, the Bolshoi’s Svetlana Zakharova returned to La Scala as a guest star to dance Nikiya in Natalia Makarova’s production. Zakharova ended up by dancing six out of the nine Bayadères in this run (what happened to the local ballerinas?) — and she took the Milanese audiences by storm.

Carrying a chunk of tradition as massive as Milan’s duomo — which, typically, seems continuously under repair — and living as part of one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, La Scala Ballet holds a delicate position on today’s dance scene. The company is led by Frédéric Olivieri, a Frenchman in his early forties and a former dancer with the Paris Opera, the Ballets de Monte Carlo and Hamburg Ballet. Since his appointment in 2002 he has been taking great pains to raise the artistic level of his troupe and enhance its national and international credibility, which is as much a quest to create an independent profile within the opera house as it is a struggle to compensate the current cutback in governmental subsidies. In recent seasons the company took up a strenuous touring schedule, while by inviting prominent choreographers like John Neumeier, Angelin Preljocaj and Roland Petit, Olivieri hopes to widen the repertory further with new works as well as with the classics. The ideas, the willpower and the ambition are there, but the road is still long.

La Scala acquired Natalia Makarova’s well-known staging of La Bayadère in 1992. The ballet was then not only new to La Scala, it was also the first time La Bayadère was staged full-length in Italy. It had been seven years since the company last danced it, which is far too long an interruption. If the current performances can be a guide, the company will have to dance it a lot more before it will be able to call it its own or indeed compete with the best.

If the women’s corps de ballet seemed well-rehearsed for the descent down the slopes of the Himalayas, the scene never quite attained the mesmerizing power it can have with other companies — the Mariinsky or the Paris Opera come to mind. The choreography was served in a sort of raw state without the proper common sense of purpose. A more serious handicap was the lack of reliable demi-soloists in the company. Perhaps I came there on the wrong days, but on that level there wasn’t anybody above mere competence in sight. The girls in the pas d’action of the Betrothal Act were at times cruelly lacking in harmony and polish, often struggling against the swift-paced conducting of David Coleman. The three solo shades were also more remarkable for their enthusiasm than their classical precision, again pushed ahead to breaking point by the music. Fine if a steady swift tempo is preferred — and Natalia Makarova should know best of all — but when the dancers aren’t ready for it yet, it exposes their shortcomings even more. Similarly, both Antonino Sutera and Maurizio Licitra who danced the Golden Idol, about managed to do all the tricks, but the piece can and should be more exciting than it was here, while placement and style were often only approximate. On the other hand, the secondary mime characters came out rather well, especially Bryan Hewison as the Grand Brahmin.

So it was clear that the delights and thrills had to be looked for at the top. Svetlana Zakharova had been invited to La Scala in previous seasons for Swan Lake and Giselle, which gained her quite an Italian following. Returning for La Bayadère the Bolshoi star brought, beside her formidable technique, the experience and fully-fledged understanding from having danced Nikiya in no less than seven different productions, including Makarova’s which she performed with American Ballet Theater and Hamburg Ballet. An otherworldly feeling of integrity pervaded the stage during her first entrance — and very appropriately, so the Milanese audience applauded after her unveiling by the Grand Brahmin, rather than at her appearance in the doorway of the temple. Any worries about stylistic incompatibility with the rest of the company were soon put to rest, simply because everything was delivered with such assurance and authority there couldn’t be any doubt.

The ballet undoubtedly holds very few secrets for Zakharova any longer, yet her approach remains agreeably fresh and even surprising. We already knew she is the supreme adagio ballerina, but there is no way to fault her in the allegro passages either, while changes in tempo are now beautifully controlled and musical. The short solo scene around the Sacred Fire before meeting with Solor was a pure marvel with her immaculate footwork and silken touch. The meeting itself, ravishing by its phrasing and musical grace, was a moment of pure bliss that one wanted to continue in spite of John Lanchbery’s sugary treatment of the score. And even Makarova’s anti-climactic coda to Nikiya’s fatal soliloquy made sense by Zakharova’s timing.

Like her dancing the character came out vividly, with a well-judged sense of theatricality and Zakharova’s now characteristic blend of large-scale projection and eye for detail. It’s not a slap in the face, but there is no way to misread her. Her mime boasted a textbook clarity and one wished the production would give her more opportunities to display it, as in the all too succinct confrontation with Gamzatti.

This was by far the best Kingdom of the Shades scene I’ve seen her do so far.  Her shade projected a fascinating serenity and cool, in spite of the breakneck pace in the middle section, and the choreography was uncovered in all its glory. Her performance was rightly cheered.

Zakharova developed a fine partnership with La Scala’s own Roberto Bolle. Undoubtedly a better classical dancer than his brutally handsome good looks and his mannequin-fairytale prince appearance may lead one to suspect, Bolle will nonetheless hardly ever take your breath away. He has everything it takes to make a good Solor, and if only he could push himself a bit harder he might even become a great one. True, the character hasn’t been given much credit by Makarova, but in Bolle’s case one understands he needs to be taken by the hand by the Brahmin in the final scene to make up his mind. Too prudent on the first evening — filmed, I suppose for future DVD release — he was above all a reliable and solid partner for Zakharova and Isabelle Brusson’s Gamzatti. But no matter, Bolle is immensely popular at La Scala and in the whole of Italy, and clearly can’t do wrong on home-ground. In a second night he appeared in much better form, dancing his solos full out.

The casting of corps member Isabelle Brusson as Gamzatti was a weird choice. Understudy Brusson obviously wasn’t ready yet for so challenging an assignment. She did what she could, but lacked the stamina to get through the Grand Pas and the character was reduced to a few snapshots, which unbalanced the dramatic development of the ballet considerably. Even more bizarre was that Brusson danced six performances in this run.

The La Scala production took the costumes from the Royal Ballet staging by Yolanda Sonnabend, and also has sets by Pier Luigi Samaritani, albeit looking more luxuriant and grander here on the magnificent La Scala stage than at Covent Garden. David Coleman conducted the excellent Orchestra of La Scala. They weren’t exactly able to save the maltreated score, arranged by John Lanchbery, but at least they didn’t play Minkus with any second-thoughts.

Photos: Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle, corps de ballet of La Scala. Photo by MARCO BRESCIA-TEATRO ALLA SCALA.

Volume 4, No. 21
May 29, 2006

copyright ©2006 Marc Haegeman



©2006 DanceView